Samuel J. Battle – Born in North Carolina in 1883, Samuel “Big Sam” Battle joined the New York City Police Department in 1911, making him the first black police officer in the city of New York. Battle became the first black police sergeant in 1926 and the first lieutenant in 1935. He played a pivotal role in ending the Harlem Riots of 1935, which started when rumors began to circulate that teenage shoplifter Lino Rivera had been beaten to death in the basement of Kress Five and Ten store. This rumor led to three days of rioting, three dead, and hundreds injured. Battle helped bring the violence to an end when he had his picture taken with Rivera, and then circulated copies of the photo throughout Harlem. Battle would go on to become the first black parole commissioner in 1941. He passed away in 1966, and in 2009 the intersection of Lenox Avenue and West 135th Street in Harlem was named after him.
Marshall “Major” Taylor—The son of a Civil War veteran, and one of eight children, Marshall Taylor and his family moved from Kentucky to Indiana, where his father went to work for a wealthy white family. Taylor became friends with Dan Southard, the son of his father’s employer. The Southards afforded Marshall a good life and helped him with his education. When he was 12 they gave him his first bicycle, and he soon became an adept trick rider. Taylor was hired to perform tricks on a bike while dressed as a soldier, earning him the nickname “Major.” By the time he was 13, Major Taylor had won his first bike race. Despite being banned from some race tracks and threatened at others, Taylor excelled in competitive bike racing, and turned professional in 1896 when he was 18 years old, leading to a career that would last seventeen years. Among Taylor’s biggest supporters was President Teddy Roosevelt. Taylor set several world records during his career, and would become the first African-American athlete to achieve the status or world champion (although African-Canadian boxer George Dixon was the first black athlete to ever be a world champion). Taylor earned a considerable salary as a professional racer, but he lost his money in bad investments and during the stock market crash. He died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave.
DR. DANIEL HALE WILLIAMS – The son of a “free negro” and a white mother, Daniel Hale Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1858, three years before the Civil War. Williams would grow up to become a doctor—the first black cardiologist. In 1893, Williams became the first doctor to successfully perform open-heart surgery. Other attempts had been made as far back as the early 1800s, but Williams was the first surgeon to not have his patient die after the procedure. Williams is also known for founding Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first non-segregated hospital in the United States. Provident also became a major training school for African-American nurses. Williams’s long list of achievements also includes co-founding the National Medical Association, an organization that represents African-American doctors.
ALTHEA GIBSON– Long before the Williams sisters took the world of tennis by storm, there was Althea Gibson, the South Carolina-born woman who broke the color barrier of competitive tennis. Gibson’s family moved to Harlem in the 1930s, and it was there that she became involved in tennis. She had a successful career in the world of amateur tennis, and at the age of 31 she turned pro. Among the many highlights and historical landmarks of her career are her wins at Wimbledon (1957) and the U.S. Open (1958), making her the first black tennis player to win both tournaments. During those years, Gibson was the Top Ranked U.S. Women’s tennis player. After retiring from tennis in 1959, Gibson penned her autobiography, recorded an album, and even dabbled in acting. She would return to sports in 1964, this time in golf, as the first black woman in the LPGA. In 1971 she was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. “In sports, you simply aren’t considered a real champion until you have defended your title successfully. Winning it once can be a fluke; winning it twice proves you are the best.” – Althea Gibson
Black Basketball Players—It seems impossible to believe that there was ever a time when basketball was a segregated sport, but up until the 1950-51 season, the NBA was a white-only league. Before the NBA desegregated, the only integrated basketball league was the National Basketball League (NBL), which had been around since 1937 and became integrated during the 1942-43 season (five years before Jackie Robinson would go on to break the color barrier in baseball). The all-black New York Rens were brought into the NBL during the 1948-49 season, and moved to Dayton to replace a league franchise that had folded. Before joining the NBL, the Rens (also know as the New York Renaissance) had been one of several all-black professional teams that included the Harlem Globetrotters. The 48-49 season would be the last of the NBL. The next year, the NBA, which had been formed in 1946, became integrated. Earl “The Big Cat” Lloyd (Washington Capitals), Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (New York Knicks), Chuck Cooper (Boston Celtics) and Hank DeZonie (Tri-Cities Blackhawks) were the first black players in the NBA. Of these four, three had individual distinctions within the NBA. Cooper became the first black player drafted to the NBA, Clifton was the first to sign a NBA contract, and Lloyd was the first black player to actually play in the NBA.
OTIS BLACKWELL – It’s easy to not fully comprehend the importance of black musicians in the history of rock-n-roll, because so many contributions by black musicians have never been properly acknowledged. For every blues musician like Robert Johnson or early rockers like Little Richard of Chuck Berry that are remembered, there are dozens of names that have gone forgotten. Songwriter and singer Otis Blackwell helped define rock-n-roll, writing some of the best known rock songs of the 1950s. Blackwell also wrote under the name John Davenport, and his impressive lists of hits includes “All Shook Up,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Fever,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Return to Sender,” “Handy Man,” and “Daddy Rolling Stone.”
JAMES BENJAMIN “BIG BEN” PARKER – On September 6, 1901, President William McKinnley was attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. At shortly after 4pm, Leon Czgolosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist from Michigan, fired two shots at President McKinley. Standing in line behind Czgolosz was James Benjamin “Big Ben” Parker, a black man who stood six feet six inches tall and tipped the scales at 250 pounds. Acting quickly, Big Ben Parker tackled Czgolosz, broke the assassin’s nose, and managed to capture the man who murdered President McKinley, who died on September 14 of gangrene resulting from the gunshot wounds. For a brief time—after being accused of being involved with Czgolosz—Big Ben Parker became a national hero. He was quoted as having said, “I am a Negro, and am glad that the Ethiopian race has what ever credit comes with what I did. If I did anything, the colored people should get the credit.”
The Vanport Flood—Vanport City was founded in Oregon, just north of Portland, in 1943. A makeshift community that was built to house the shipyard workers who had come to work in Portland and Vancouver, Washington, during World War II, Vanport was the second largest city in the state of Oregon. It was also home to approximately 6,000 blacks, who made up rough a third of the city’s population. At the time, Portland had a reputation of being incredibly racist and unwelcoming to blacks, which led to the formation of Vanport City, a public housing community that served as a means to keep the “undesirables” out of the rest of the state. Although the Vanport was never meant to be an actual community, it thrived in the years after World War II, with its own school system—including Vanport College which would go on to become Portland State University—and local business community. Unlike Portland, Vanport was a heavily integrated city, with blacks and whites going to school together and living the same neighborhoods. After a winter of heavy rainfall and snow, the Columbia River that bordered Vanport on the north was in danger of flooding. On Sunday, May 30, 1948—Memorial Day—the river broke through the railroad dike and the river came rushing in. Within hours the city of Vanport was wiped off the face of the Earth. There were only 15 reported deaths, but urban legends of hundreds of deaths, including a school bus full of children and a warehouse full of corpses hidden from the public, still persist in the Portland. With almost the entire black population of the state displaced by the destruction of Vanport, the city of Portland and the state of Oregon was grudgingly forced to desegregate.
MATTHEW HENSON – Robert Peary is most often credited as the first man set foot at the North Pole, but technically and historically that distinction goes to Matthew Henson, a fellow explorer and associate of Peary. Both men had worked together, including several expeditions to the Arctic. Henson has spent a significant time living with the Inuit, spoke their language, and had considerable experience working with dogsleds. He joined Peary in 1909 on the explorer’s eighth attempt to reach the North Pole. His health failing, and unable to walk, Peary went by dogsled while Henson led the way by foot. Although Peary is credited as having “discovered” the North Pole, Henson had set foot there first. Peary was lauded as a hero, receiving many honors and awards, while Henson lived much of his life in the shadows. In 1944, Congress recognized Henson’s contribution to the Peary expedition.
A friend of mine calls it her Spiritual Birthday—the day she almost died. I like that more than Re-Birthday, which is what I’d been calling the anniversary of my own brush with the Grim Reaper. It is a day filled with so much trauma and dread that it is almost crippling. I’ve tried to turn it into something positive, because despite what happened, it really is an incredible day—it is the day I didn’t die. It is the day that the pneumonia that sent me to the hospital with a “heart attack” didn’t do me in. I’ve written about this day before, and I’ll probably write about it in the future, because it’s a reminder of second chances.
On this day, five years ago, I went to the emergency room with severe pain in my chest. All the doctors said I’d had a heart attack, but it turned out that is was just massive inflammation around the heart, caused by pneumonia. Not technically a heart attack, but still capable of killing me. I’m told that I was lucky to survive, and that had I not gone to the hospital, I would’ve died. That’s a difficult concept to wrap your brain around. I still struggle with it—especially given the number of friends and family members that have died since my own experience. The difference between almost dying and dying is as vast as anything you can think of—and even then, it’s vaster than that.
Last year at this time, I was struggling with depression and anxiety—two of the constants in my life after my illness. I had never experienced either—at least not like I have these past five years. But last year, as I was celebrating my 4th Re-Birthday/Spiritual Birthday, I was optimistic about the year that ahead. To be clear, as I turn five, this year gone by has been anything but easy. The struggle with depression has been constant, and the anxiety…well…that shit has, at times, been unrelenting. At the same, no matter what the depression and the anxiety would have me believe, this year has been pretty damn good. I can see the positive, and on the good days, I can appreciate it as well.